Thursday, June 30, 2011

How many wins do the Twins need? (Updated 6/30/2011)

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Tom Kelly used to say, you are never as bad as you look when things are going bad, nor as good was you look when things are going good. Unfortunately, while that should have given us hope during the Twins struggles, it is also a cautionary tale about the Twins recent burst of wins. Despite their recent success, the Twins have the worst record in the American league. They are nine games out right now, but a three game losing streak could leave them 12 out by the end of the next series.

On the other hand, the number of wins needed to take the central division may be much fewer than it has been in recent years. The division leader, Cleveland, is on a pace to win slightly less than 88 games. The Twins will need a .640 percentage over the rest of the season to reach that number. That is still a daunting task. Over a full season a .640 winning percentage is over 103 victories. The ability of the Twins to put together that kind of record is going to require Mauer, Morneau and Young to start producing at last years levels. And they are going to have to beat the teams ahead of them while doing it to prevent their competition from matching their pace. That needs to start with their next series against the White Sox.


In the last two weeks the Twins went on a winning streak and then a losing streak. Cleveland has fallen back into a virtual tie with Tigers. Both the division leaders are now on a pace to end the season with 86 victories. The Twins will need to win games at a .626 pace the rest of the way in order to match that total. That's slightly less than Philadelphia's percentage over the first half of the season.

In short, the Twins have been catching up. And catching up at a pace that exceeds the minimum necessary. Its a long season, but so long as the percentage of games they need to win keeps going down, we know they are ahead of the pace they need to win.

Reading Tea Leaves at Fort Myers

Several bloggers have suggested the fact that Oswaldo Acia was promoted from low-A ball Beloit to high-A ball Fort Myers is an indication he is on some kind of fast track. Acia started the year at Beloit and did very well at the plate but was unable to play the field as a result of problems with this elbow. They finally decided he needed surgery.  He has now recovered, but instead of sending him back to Beloit, they decided to keep him at Fort Myers. And I use "keep" here because, like all Twins players, Arcia was doing his recovery and rehab at the Twins spring training facility in Fort Myers which is also home to the Fort Myers A- ball team in the Florida State League. 

While its possible Acia is on the fast track. Its also possible they want him to be playing where the team's rehab staff and trainers can better keep an eye on him. If he ends up back at Beloit at some point, we shouldn't see that as a step back.

Is it time to abandon Nishioka?

There are a group of bloggers out there who are ready to jettison Tsuyoshi Nishioka. They have decided he can't hit based on 75 plate appearances and can't play shortstop based on 53 chances. To say they have trigger fingers is an understatement. Nishioka has struggled, as have other Twins players this year. But those struggles are part of adapting to playing in the major leagues. Some of the bloggers suggest sending Nishioka to AAA. But Nishioka has nothing to prove at that level. He showed his ability in Japanese ball. Like the jump from AAA to the major leagues, the jump from Japan to the US is a big one that requires adjustments for most players. Of course, patience has never attracted a lot of hits on blogs. 

At least part of this blogsphere movement is based on another typical media meme, the grass is greener somewhere else. Trevor Plouffe is on a hot streak at AAA and suddenly has gone from"failed prospect" to major league savior in just two weeks, or two months depending on how vociferous the blogger was about his failure.  Plouffe, of course, struggled with both the bat and in the field in a limited audition earlier this year. Nishioka's move to shortstop was at least in part driven by Plouffe's failure to claim the job. Plouffe however has been on a tear with his bat at AAA recently while playing some in right field in addition to shortstop. I have always been a fan of Plouffe's and his performance at AAA is not really a surprise. He is finally maturing and showing the power that was projected to be there. At some point he will be ready to contribute again at the major league level, but its not clear that will be at shortstop. It was his fielding, not his bat, that got him sent back to AAA. Its way too early to decide he is ready for another audition.  In any case,  I don't think its time to give up on Nishioka to make room for him in the big league lineup. 

Nishioka needs some time to adjust to the big leagues. If he is still struggling in a month or two, then you might decide the experiment was a failure and send him to AAA. But sending him to AAA now is the kind of snap judgment that makes for good stories in the media, but lousy baseball teams.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Creating a story, BS on Mauer and Mijares from the STRIB

Lets see:

Fielder hits a double on a fastball.

Gardenhire criticizes the pitch selection in a key at bat. He thinks Mijares should have been using his slider.

Smart reporter sees his chance and asks Mijares why he was throwing fastballs. Mijares, who could have shaken off the pitch but is smart enough to throw what Mauer calls,  says he doesn't know why the catcher called only for fastballs but maybe its because his slider wasn't working very well the last time out.

Smart reporter then asks Mauer about Mijares comments. Mauer points out that, while he called for a fastball, the one he got was in a different location. He seems to think the problem wasn't with the fastball call , but with its location. 

This is portrayed as a problem between Mijares and Mauer. 

Of course the only one really criticizing Mauer (and Mijares) was Gardenhire. And Gardenhire has never called a game in his life, he is just going with his cursory knowledge of the subject. Mauer, by contrast, had reasons for calling a fastball and Mijares just failed to get execute the pitch he wanted. Its like saying the guy took a called third strike,  he should have been swinging.   Of course, that isn't a particularly interesting story. But we will be hearing this ridiculous excuse for reporting repeated over and over again in the blogsphere for the next five years. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Repko or Revere?

It would seem like an easy call to say the Twins should keep Ben Revere over Jason Repko as the fourth outfielder. Defensively Revere is the better player in center and left. Repko might be a better choice in right field just because Revere's arm is so weak. Offensively, there is no comparison. While his bat is suspect, Repko brings good speed to the basepaths. Revere however, is faster and his bat is much better.

The problem for Revere is that we aren't really talking about a fourth outfielder, its really a fifth outfielder behind Young, Span, Cuddyer and Kubel. While Kubel can DH most of the time, getting Thome in the lineup requires one of those four guys to sit occasionally. The fifth outfielder is really only needed to give Span a break in center field and as a late inning defensive replacement. Repko or Revere, as fifth outfielde,r would play sparingly while also being used as a pinch runner.

Of course you could sit one of the other outfielders to give Revere at bats. But, with Nishioka back to add speed to the top of the lineup, its hard to see how Revere is more valuable to this team than a power bat in the middle of the lineup Of course, that assumes the Twins get everyone healthy and Young, Cuddyer and Kubel are providing those power bats. But given the rest of the lineup is producing, it is going to be tough to find regular at bats for Revere. While he's an exciting player, I think his overall development is going to be better served playing every day at Rochester than watching from the major league bench.  Come August, if the Twins are 10 games out of first, that would change. But not while they are still trying to get back in the race.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hughes or Valencia?

Luke Hughes did not help himself with his error and lack of hustle following that error today. But his bat and play at third should be raising questions about Danny Valencia's continued role. 

There have been some recent discussions in the blogsphere that Valencia really isn't hitting all that much worse than last year. And there may be some truth to that. Valencia started with a hot month and then tailed off considerably the last couple months of last season. This left him with season averages that were quite inflated compared to his typical level of play. So while he may not be hitting that much worse, it looks a lot worse compared to the numbers that made him a given at third base going into this season. 

The Twins offense struggled until recently, but at this point Valencia's numbers are bad even in the context of Twins's starters. Among the seven players who qualify for the batting title, Valencia is last in AVG, 5th in OBP and 6th in SLG. This from what is typically an offensive oriented position. While Nick Punto might get away with Valencia's numbers, Valencia doesn't have the glove to justify hitting this poorly. Worse, Valencia has shown no real signs of coming to life. If anything, his recent numbers are worse.

By contrast, Hughes bat has picked up since he was recalled from Rochester. He isn't as good defensively as Valencia, but he has the flexibility to play a couple other infield positions. And for late inning defense, Tolbert provides a glove off the bench better than either one.

There are really two questions. One is whether you are ready to give up on Valencia. The other, if you aren't, is will he be helped more playing at Rochester or by continuing to work through things at the major league level. In the end the answer to those questions may depend less on Valencia than how long the Twins continue their hot streak. But once all the injured players return a decision will have to be made on whether to keep Valencia or Hughes on the big league roster. If the decision were made today, I think they would have to go with Hughes. 

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Its not (just) the bullpen

Twins bullpen - 13 losses
Twins starters - 35 losses

The problem isn't just the bullpen or even mostly the bullpen. 

There seems to be a tendency among sports writers/bloggers/fans to blame the Twins bad start on whatever will justify that person's off-season concerns. The reality is that the Twins performance has fallen off across the board, defense, pitching and offense. So lets start with the offense, which is last in the league in runs scored. This is a result of a decline form 2010 of 14% in hits, 17% in runners on base and .22% in total bases per game. So what is responsible for that decline? One way of looking at this is to compare what positions account for these declines from last year to this year. 

The only positions who have not declined in all three categories (hits, on base and total bases) are center field and right field. With Denard Span (and Ben Revere) the center field positions offensive output has increased across the board. Right fielders have produced more hits and runners, but had a slight decline in total bases. But the real question is which positions account for the biggest share of the decliine.

Not surprisingly the catching position leads the way, but not in all three categories. Its second in TB, while the biggest dropoff there has been from left field. The dropoff in left field is second in hits and third on getting on base. The offensive decline at these two positions account for over half the offensive decline in every category. 

What is surprising, is that, for all the complaints about shortstop, the fall off from offense at second base has been greater in all three categories. In fact, the drop off at shortstop for OB is less than every position except RF and CF. And only third base joins those two with less dropoff than shortstop in TB.  Only in terms of hits has shortstop declined more than the team average. 

I have thought that a big part of the problem was Justin Morneau's struggles. But while there has been a fall off at first base, its not nearly as great as it would appear from comparing Morneau's stats. The fall off at first base is greater than average at TB and OBP, but there are four positions in each case that are worse. In terms of hits, it is actually above average with 5 positions worse.  On the other hand, the DH spot has been a bigger problem than first base in every category.

So where does that leave us? If we put players names on the positions with the greatest falloff  they would be Mauer, Young, Nishioka and Thome/Kubel. Of course given the way the lineup has been juggled in response to injuries its hard to put individual names on the production from either year.   What is interesting is that third base is not that much worse than last year (this is largely because it wasn't as good last year with Punto et al as Valencia's numbers indicate), nor has shortstop been a huge problem on offense. And while Morneau's struggles are a problem, Young's have been a much bigger problem.

The reason the Twins still have some hope is that a lineup with Mauer, Morneau and Young hitting the way they did when healthy last year will produce a lot more runs, fewer one run games and fewer opportunities for the bullpen to blow a lead.  And if the bullpen stops blowing leads, they have a chance to catch up to the rest of the central division in a year when there is considerable balance across the major leagues.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Twins Draft

The Twins first choice in the 2011 draft was college shortstop Levi Michael. According to the scouting report on the major league baseball site, Micheal may not have the range and/or arm to be an everyday major league shortstop. He profiles as a second baseman or utility player. I tend to believe the top few choices should focus on players with high upsides. The kind of players that can be part of the core of a championship team. From this report, at least, Michael's upside looks more like a solid role player.

Their second choice, 50 overall, is a different story. Travis Harrison is high school third baseman whose one major tool is power. There are questions whether he will stay at third or have to move to first base. And there are also some questions about whether he is anything more than average as a hitter. What he has is home run power. He could be a great player or a complete bust. But his upside sounds more exciting that Michael's. Of course as a high school kid, that upside is a lot further away.

 There third choice in the first round, 55 overall, was high school right-hander  Hudson Boyd. According to Baseball America he profiles as a workhorse with a plus fastball. 

The Twins have one more choice in the top 100 at number 87.

There is no such thing as a typical draft. My guess is that we will see a lot more pitching as the draft continues. But there are several things to remember about the baseball draft:

1) Most of the players taken, even in the first round, will not have significant major league careers. And after the first ten choices overall, they most likely won't play in the big leagues at all. Of course every year players slip through in later rounds and turn into stars or at least serviceable major league players. But when that happens organizations are pleasantly surprised and pat themselves on the back.

2) For players taken after the top 100 picks are done the chances are very slim. The chances for a guy taken  in the fifth round are not that much better than a guy taken in the 10th round. So players taken after today are real long shots. A few will get a chance to play in the major leagues,however briefly, but mostly they are organization players filling out minor league rosters.

3) Teams almost always draft players they had rated as better than their draft position. The only way for that not to happen is for all the teams ahead of them to have agreed with their assessments. That isn't likely. So when reporters tell you a team was pleased a player "fell" to them, that isn't really a story. It is all but inevitable for every team after the first few choices.

4) We won't know the outcome of this draft for at least five years and likely longer. Most players will take at least that long just to get to the majors, much less establish themselves there.

5) A draft that produces two major league players is a success.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Phil Humber's BABIP, K9, BB9

This analysis is a great example of the problems that can occur with using statistics without fully understanding their meaning:

"So what are we to make of Humber, where did this come from, and more importantly, can it last?

The short answer to that last question is, no. No, he cannot maintain a 2.85 ERA, few pitchers can, and those who sport .210 BABIP marks definitely cannot. But there are other things about his performance in 2011 that he can carry forward. Primarily, an improved BB rate that, at 1.95/9IP is more than a full walk less than his career average of 2.99. If he can pump his K rate back into the mid-five range, with his typically solid (if unspectacular) ground ball rates, that could translate into the sort of sustainable performance you'd expect of a #4 or #5 starter."

For instance how did Humber get an "improved BB rate". You would think the answer would be by walking fewer batters. While he is walking slightly fewer batters, that isn't what is driving his BB9 down significantly.. Instead he has improved his walk rate by getting more batters out and thereby increasing his IP. Its the same reason his K9 is down, And those increased outs can all be traced to that dramatic improvement in his BABIP. In other words, all three statistics reflect the same change in performance. Its possible that Humber will sustain an above average BABIP, most successful pitchers do, but no pitcher has ever sustained one around .210. And, as his BABIP increases, the number of outs will go down and his BB/9 and K/9 will both go up.  If goes up to the league average of .300, he is likely in trouble.

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